The White Helmets of Syria, also known as the Syria Civil Defense, is an organization of 2,900 civilians who, according to Time Magazine, go “into some of the most dangerous places on earth to do what the world has refused to do – save Syrian lives.”
Abu Omar, a member of the White Helmets and a former blacksmith, said, “The morale of the White Helmets is always high. We are always ready to respond to incidents. But we just hope that the bombing and air strikes stop. We have to admit that the situation in Syria is going from bad to worse. There is no solution on the horizon. The situation is sad. Syria is sad.”
With over 120 centers across Syria, the organization has focused most of its work in the capital city Aleppo, where the center is located according to Time. Jared Malsin, author of the Time article, wrote that the White Helmets work in places affected by Assad’s aircraft barrel bombs or Russian missiles hit. On every occasion, the White Helmets are the first to arrive and respond to the myriads of airstrikes and bombs every day.
Helena Hannonen, a BYU-Hawaii professor in business management, said, “It’s your people. You don’t wait for somebody to come and help you. You do it yourself. These people are resilient. They have a different kind of stamina. They go and do it. This is a different sort of White Christmas.”
The volunteers come from different backgrounds but have come together for this simple cause, wrote Malsin. “They drew volunteers from a wide spectrum of Syrians: there were teachers and tailors, firefighters who defected from regime-controlled fire departments. [Raed] Saleh, the group’s chief, was an electronics salesman.
From that disparate set of local groups grew a unified national organization that now claims more than 3,000 volunteers in rebel-held areas across the country.”
“The White Helmets,” a documentary short released by Netflix this past September, showcases a brief peek into the lives of the men in the White Helmets and show them in action as they risk their lives to save others.
Khalid Farah, a member of the White Helmets and a former builder, said in the documentary, “My family is very important to me. I’m always worrying about them. I have a strong belief in my work for the White Helmets. And every time I’m on a rescue mission, I think about them. I try as hard as possible to save every person under the rubble, whether they are young or old. I consider them all to be my family.” He said he is trying to do something for his people and for his country.
Omar said, “Every morning, I wake up and do this work because it’s my duty, my humanitarian duty. I will never quit as long as I’m still alive. In the White Helmets we have a motto: ‘To save a life is to save all of humanity.’”
Mohammed Farah, a member of the White Helmets and a former tailor, said, “Before joining the White Helmets, I was with an armed group. I fought for the opposition for three months. But I saw that the regime’s campaign was targeting civilians. And I thought, ‘It is better to do humanitarian work than to be armed. Better to rescue a soul than to take one.”
He continued, “The situation is very difficult in Syria right now, especially with Russia’s intervention to support the regime. They say that they are fighting ISIS, but they are targeting civilians. The causalities are rising daily. The bloodbath is not stopping. I’m willing to sacrifice my soul for the sake of the people. This job is sacred.”
Malsin said The White Helmets began their roots in the 2011 uprising. Most White Helmet volunteers have no prior rescue experience. To help them cope, teams often leave Syria for month-long training courses in Turkey, as shown in the documentary.
However, the men of Syria are not the only ones doing humanitarian work in their country. The website says, “Almost all official members of the White Helmets were men until two women’s teams were formed in October 2014. These 78 heroic women are trained in medical care and light search and rescue work. They respond to barrel bomb and missile strikes and dig for survivors using tools and their bare hands.
“In some cases, they are the only hope for other women or girls who are trapped under rubble. In Syria’s most conservative communities, people have refused to let male volunteers rescue women and girls – but the women have intervened to help those who wouldn’t have been helped otherwise.”
The White Helmets are unarmed and neutral. Omar said, “Any human being, no matter who they are, or which side they’re on, if they need our help, it’s our duty to save them.”
Their website concurs, “The volunteers save people on all sides of the conflict - pledging commitment to the principles of ‘Humanity, Solidarity, Impartiality’ as outlined by the International Civil Defence Organisation. This pledge guides every response, every action, every life saved - so that in a time of destruction, all Syrians have the hope of a lifeline.”